In the late ’60s, Pauline Kael wrote a piece bemoaning (she was quite good at bemoaning) the state of US movie companies with regard to how they were turning to England for directors. She commented, “The English can write and they can act… but they can’t direct movies”. She proceeded with a list of examples, honourably exempting Hitchcock and Carol Reed (but unforgivably omitting Michael Powell). It admittedly included a string of fair comments, but also rather unjustly picked on several lights of the comedy genre, as if that was ever, anywhere, with very rare exceptions, known for stylistic darlings.
Flash forward a decade and Kael would probably – maybe – have reconsidered her assessment of the “fundamental lack of directorial energy and distinction – of any real directorial artistry”, as the influx of ad auteurs from British shores began to make their mark. One of whom, of course, was Sir Ridders of Scott, who rightly wowed with his directorial artistry over the course of three or four movies. Yet, even at that point, he exhibited little grasp of the importance of the screenplay (and only progressively less so since), and his skill with actors tended to amount to hoping he’d settled for the right one (Kingdom of Heaven would firmly evidence how hit-and-miss this approach was).
Scott was nearly sixty by the time G.I. Jane came out, and some might have feared he was past it as a filmmaker, despite being a late starter in features; the director whose announcement of a new project was awaited with anticipation only a few years earlier was now reduced to churning out a flashy, vacuous star vehicle, one that made Private Benjamin look nuanced. He appeared creatively spent, still going through the motions stylistically (albeit with markedly less pictorial elegance) but bereft of any compass.
Of course, his post-Gladiator hot-ish streak and re-energisation (ten movies in the twenty years prior, sixteen and counting in the sixteen since) could be quite legitimately argued as simply a more productive run of style over substance, with less vacillating in between; his recognition of decent material remains as hopeless as before and, as here, when he inadvisably ventures into the territory of politically-charged material (Black Hawk Down, Body of Lies) his deficiencies as a keen thinker are cast in an even less flattering light.
But G.I. Jane, from the title down, remains, with Black Rain, on a separate tier of undisguised commercialism; elsewhere, Scott has generally at least made some gesture towards a veneer of artistic integrity or sincere intent. Jane is the kind of fare brother Tony (RIP) would have been more likely to take on, and also more than likely to have had considerably more fun with; the propaganda piece that is Top Gun, or the paranoia palace of Enemy of the State, dive headlong into their subject matter, relishing them, whatever conclusions you may draw about the finished product.
There’s no such unabashed good time to be had with G.I. Jane. Part of that may be that there’s no good time to be had with Demi Moore, even though she gets away with a skinhead every bit as well as Sigourney in Alien 3. Not that she deserved the Razzie (nomination) – what’s ridiculous about the movie isn’t really about her performance – but it’s essential, standard-issue, against-the-odds, crowd-pleasing premise would have played much more readily if someone with real spark had taken the lead.
Mostly, though, it’s about Sir Ridders, director for hire. He admitted Jane was a formulaic affair at the time, designed with the express intention of putting bums on seats, possibly in response to the back-to-back failures of 1492: Conquest of Paradise and White Squall. And possibly he thought – in his own, non-screenplay-savvy way – he could rekindle some of the kudos Thelma and Louise (and, in a retrospective sense, Alien) garnered him as a “feminist director”. If you can’t really blame his commercial instincts – Ridley gotta smoke cigars, and also eat – the crassness on display is entirely his baby, since he plays every clichéd element to the hilt.
The screenplay is courtesy of Danielle Alexandra and David Twohy. The latter provided the rewrite, and he was probably the wrong guy – what Jane needed was a literate rather than a B-sensibility, if anyone was actually going to get away with exploring this subject without yielding snorts of derision.
That’s because the debate Alexandra and Twohy muster is lazily provocative, only seeming interested in making its case through shallow bombast (so much so, it’s indicative of the half-arsed execution that it didn’t do better business). The suggestion that women shouldn’t only be allowed to serve in the military (well, in the Navy) and be treated on an entirely equal footing to men, but should also be admitted to the SEALs and allowed to serve on the front line (both of which the Pentagon opened the door to last year), makes for an attention-grabbing premise.
Yet the picture fudges and obfuscates its intentions repeatedly. Anne Bancroft’s self-serving senator picks Moore’s Lieutenant Jordan O’Neill as a test case on the grounds of her photogenic femininity (in comparison to other candidates), later revealing, after attempting to sabotage her prospects, that she never thought O’Neill would get so far (serving to underline Demi as the classic, root-able-for underdog). O’Neill replies “I wanted the choice. That’s how it’s supposed to be”. But supposed-to-bes are rather undermined when we’re sold a pampered Hollywood star presenting the case.
G.I. Jane is only willing to go so far in exploring its subject, before pulling back. It’s much easier just to take the leap of depicting an environment where women serve with men unquestioned, in the likes of Aliens and Starship Troopers, than traversing the minefield of getting there. The screenplay tentatively raises a few considerations/voiced objections via Viggo Mortensen’s philosopher-master chief who crudely attempts to demonstrate how easily manipulated recruits would be for information under POW conditions, as he places O’Neill in a situation of imminent rape during a training exercise. He has earlier told her how the Israeli army encountered difficulties with equal status, as male soldiers would prioritise injured female troops; his point being, the theoretical equality just wouldn’t happen in practice.
However, Scott is making a crowd-pleaser; O’Neill fights back from being pinned down, which means the raised-scenario is left unresolved (one response might be that male soldiers could just as easily be subjected to rape). Further, she is given an (intended) air-punching but risibly crass rebuke of “Suck my dick!”, a that line gets her formerly-begrudging fellow recruits fully behind her.
Rather than the situation with a prospective enemy, the picture probably ought to have focussed more on military culture itself, in which sexual assault (male and female) is a pervasive problem. O’Neill’s “I wanted the choice” perspective may be sound in terms of principles of equality, but it’s filtered through Scott’s lens of rote, fist-pumping classical Hollywood concepts of heroism and bravery, right down to the finale’s “true grit” real combat situation (something recruits face even in comedies, to show they have the stuff; here it is ridiculously cheesily rendered in pre-shakycam fashion, the image beset by shallow zooms akin to reflecting the image in a piece of inebriated tin foil).
He’s having his cake and eating it, offering the crumbs of a serious argument (“She’s not the problem, we are” observes Viggo sagely) but then dousing it in make-believe, smoke machines, shafts of studio light and Apocalypse Now sunsets. Should women be allowed the same opportunities for degradation, indoctrination, brutalisation and brutalising, killing and being killed (oh, and defending their country, or rather, attacking others’ countries according to the dictates of extending corporate interests) as men, if they want to? Certainly; there’s no accounting for common sense, after all (and we should extend that inclusiveness to age too, since at 35, Demi was too old, even with an officer’s waiver). Illustrative of the picture’s limited reach is the facile story Morris Chestnut recounts, concerning his father’s WWII experience (rejected from a unit because “Negroes can’t see at night”), that meets with disbelief from the same guys giving Demi a hard time.
Scott’s depiction is one of a selection of banner moments; there’s little bit of resentment from O’Neill’s colleagues to overcome (most notably from that nasty Jim Cavaziel; with behaviour like his, it’s a wonder he ever got to be our Lord); standing up to her superior – The Walking Dead’s Scott Wilson – and requesting fair treatment; performing amazing one-arm press-ups during an extended, rousing, training montage; cutting her hair while adopting a mirth-inducing empowerment pose, one suggesting she’s accidentally walked in off the set of Flashdance (with that, and her post-Striptease enhancements, Demi makes a robustly glamorous GI). Which wouldn’t be such a surprise; G.I. Jane does for women in the military what that decade’s Rambo: First Blood Part II did for combat veterans suffering PTSD.*
It all ends in maximum respect, obviously, as O’Neill receives her Navy SEAL Combined Reconnaissance Team pin (quite why they go the route of inventing a unit when they couldn’t get military assistance, I’m not sure) and wells up when Viggo gives her his Navy Cross (these movie drill instructor guys, they’re all big softies deep down; well, except R L Ermey). She rescued Viggo, you see, in an altercation with some fiendish Libyans (thank goodness they aren’t a problem any more, right?), even though she wasn’t quite able to sling him over her shoulder.
Scott shoots with the empty sheen of an ex-ad director, so you at least know not to mistake this for having substance (he used to conjure worlds; by this point he’s merely spot-welding shots), and he’s accordingly aided by an appalling score from Trevor Jones, doing his best Hans Zimmer impression by charging every moment with imminent drama and urgency, even when (mostly) there is none.
The only person really coming out of this with a shred of dignity is Viggo (despite his short-shorts and moustache, looking for all the world like he’s auditioning for a Village People biopic); Jason Beghe also appears, pre-mangina, but is fairly nondescript. I’d actually remembered the movie being more brain-off (or brain-fart) enjoyable than it is; during the first half, the rigours of training have a certain can’t-go-wrong watchability, but without anything to really say, it soon devolves into a fusillade of tiresome tropes and knuckle-dragging postures. Probably the only lingering question is, which is inaner, this or Black Hawk Down? At least, with its title, there’s no mistaking G.I. Jane for articulate exploration of its subject matter going in.
*Addendum 12/09/22: The irony of Demi staking out a claim on traditionally male territory is palpable.